Struggling with insecurity on the inside, even while appearing confident on the outside, is a common battle for individuals who hold the high authority in their organizations.
When are they going to realize I’m a fraud? is a secret and lurking question that haunts even the most successful. For some people, the private doubting sounds more like, What if I’m not the right person for this job? or What if I don’t have what it takes and fail?
The doubts echo differently, but the effect is so common that psychologists have given it the name “impostor syndrome.” This phenomenon establishes a psychological pattern of doubting one’s accomplishments while elevating the abilities of others and results in an internalized fear that eventually everyone will see you for who you really are: a fraud.
This belief that luck—not accomplishments, talent or qualifications—is the reason for a person’s success was first diagnosed as a syndrome in 1978 by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance, Ph.D., and Suzanne Imes, Ph.D. Since then, researchers have discovered more about the phenomenon, learning that it strikes both men and women and doesn’t discriminate between job titles. It creeps into both the new intern’s cubicle and the corner offices of the C-suite alike.
It’s natural to assume that these persistent feelings of unworthiness might plague the worker just getting started, or to even chalk them up to nerves or inexperience. But why would executives who had worked their way up the ladder of success with experience and proven results—men and women who were chosen and hired for their ability to lead and inspire others—feel inadequate, unqualified or unworthy of their high-ranking job title?
The C-Suite Isn’t a Superpower
The answer begins with the mental image most of us subconsciously carry of what a chief executive should be: a tall and charismatic, visionary leader with Ivy League credentials who possesses laser-focused precision while making rapid-fire decisions. Add to all those exclusive characteristics the gender and racial bias elephants in the room, and the result is a typecast CEO in a role that very few people could play. This is the abrasive, well-dressed hero seen in improbable movie plotlines who saves the company at the last minute against all odds—a fantasy, but not reality.
Expectations like these are enough to make the average leader—even one with a portfolio full of awards, gleaming profit margins, and recommendation letters—question their abilities.
“Experience is cumulative. We all make bad decisions. Leaders get back up, dust themselves off, and quickly move on. Your organization depends on it.”
— Jere Thompson, Jr., Ambit Energy Co-Founder and CEO
The fears that resonate among those who sit at the head of the table aren’t much different from the fears that haunt the people who report to them. Underachieving, appearing foolish or too vulnerable, and being politically attacked by their coworkers ranked high in a 2014 Harvard Business Review study. The aftershocks of these fears, however, had a compounded impact because of their rank and were shown to create a ripple effect across the organization. As CEOs would become overcautious or take bad risks to compensate for their concerns, the way they acted out through their personal anxieties created an example of bad behavior that undermined the tiers of leadership below them as they followed suit.
But the ultimate fear of CEOs in this study is one that supplies an ideal catalyst for developing and nurturing an unhealthy struggle with the impostor syndrome: the fear of being incompetent.
Aren’t these Fears Natural?
Before standing at the helm of the multibillion-dollar Ambit Energy empire as Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Jere Thompson, Jr. remembers being plagued with nagging doubts about his own abilities. “When I started my first company and was told that the initial critical financial commitment had been approved, I was absolutely terrified,” Thompson says. “I couldn’t sleep that first night, and I was wide awake in a cold sweat, afraid that I might fail. I had never run a company, much less started one from scratch.”
And he’s not alone. Struggling with insecurity on the inside, even while appearing confident on the outside, is a common battle for individuals who hold the highest authority in their organizations. “Absolutely, I have struggled with this, and a lot of my friends involved in the industry have shared that they have too at some point in their career,” says Team National President and CEO Angela Loehr Chrysler. “I think it’s a normal aspect of caring about those you lead. As leaders, our decisions can affect thousands of individuals that trust and believe in our company, our mission and our product.”
However, as the study discovered, it isn’t the fear itself that renders a leader ineffective. In fact, according to an article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Science, 70 percent of people experience impostor feelings at some point. Most executives even view fear as a natural part of leading or taking a business to the next level.
“The more I learn, listen, read, study and work on my own leadership, the more confident I become and the more wisdom I have to tap into as needed.”
— Angela Loehr Chrysler, Team National President and CEO
Fear may have haunted them at times, but as successful CEOs in the industry, Thompson and Loehr Chrysler have proven that the fears did not overcome them, nor have they negatively impacted their companies, as would be the case for someone with true impostor syndrome. So how did they come face-to-face with their fears and emerge victorious? What actions did they take to resiliently push back against their insecurities in order to build and lead profitable and thriving organizations? While it would be wise to consider the traits they possess and the habits they practice, the behaviors and characteristics they avoid are just as important to note.
Symptoms that Lead to Ineffective Leadership
Among those with heightened feelings of fraudulence, impostor syndrome expert Valerie Young found a pattern of predictable beliefs and behaviors that prevented them from effective leadership. Impostors expected perfection, setting almost unreasonable expectations and then drowning in failure, dwarfed by their own seeming incompetence. They were hesitant to make decisions, requiring every single data point before a decision could be made for fear they would be presumed stupid if the incorrect choice was made. They urgently needed to complete tasks on their own merits, without asking for help and frequently pushed themselves harder than their peers in an ironic effort to prove they were not impostors.
When asked what sets great executives like himself apart, CEO Jere Thompson responded with “Leaders must lead,” Thompson says. “They must make prompt decisions, set and execute priorities, attract and retain great people, delegate, and establish and live the values of the organization. You aren’t going to be right all of the time.”
The Successful CEO: It’s Not Who You Think
The glossy magazine cover CEO feeds the impostor syndrome mentality, but it is, of course, not necessarily reality. The Harvard Business Review addressed these misconceptions in their ten-year study of what specific attributes set apart the successful CEO (defined as one who exceeds the expectations of their board members and majority investors) in a project named the CEO Genome Project. What they found dismantled the common trope many executives struggling with impostor syndrome have internalized.
“A willingness to act on ideas and decisions are the greatest assets effective executives bring to the table.”
Although board members tended to initially gravitate toward the extroverted leader, the CEO Genome Project discovered that successful CEOs were often introverted. Charisma may get candidates shortlisted for a big promotion or new hire, the study showed, but it alone couldn’t determine longevity. And an elite education? The study found that only 7 percent of successful CEOs held an Ivy League pedigree and, in fact, 8 percent held no college degree at all. Virtually all CEOs in the study had made mistakes in the past, with almost half of them saying their mistake was so grave it cost them a previous job or created a financial hit for the company.
Successful leaders aren’t perfect it turns out. They don’t necessarily possess a magnetic personality or stand out as the most educated person in the room. And yet there’s something different about the CEOs in this study, and the CEOs we interviewed, that sets them apart from their peers. So what’s the key to unlocking their propensity for success?
High-Performance Actions & Habits
There is no one magic solution to transform someone into a high-performing CEO who is beloved by board members and shareholders alike. There are, however, crucial habits and actions that successful CEOs commonly exhibit that stave off the feelings of fraudulence and develop organizations that will confidently follow and collaborate alongside their leader.
In business as in relationships, trust is essential. That’s why three-quarters of the CEOs classified as successful in the CEO Genome Project’s study rated high on organization and planning. By creating a rhythm of meetings, accountability structures and methods for measuring performance, these CEOs were compulsively consistent in following through on their commitments. When it comes to leadership, delivering on time—every time—really does matter.
“I am boringly consistent,” Thompson says. “I have always been pretty good at making lists, prioritizing, focusing and then completing tasks. I have tried to be the same person in good times and in bad and no matter who I am with.”
Successful CEOs delegate and work well with others, but they also know how to keep momentum even when important voices are dissenting. Conflict management was a skill excelled in by two-thirds of the project’s successful CEOs. These CEOs listen to the echoes of voices from a variety of viewpoints without allowing them to slow down the process by waiting for consensus.
It’s no secret that the very best executives surround themselves with talented people in the areas in which they are not strong. When choices are on the table, the CEO Genome Project found that successful CEOs move quickly, even before all the data is presented. The problem with delving into the complexity of each decision, even when it results in making the right choice, is that it creates gridlock, frustrating hired talent or creating a slow-moving template that can cause the company to idle and eventually even stall. A wrong decision, the study found, was better than no decision at all.
“The moment arrogance sets in, or the I-can-do-no-wrong overconfidence clouds good judgment, then bad decisions and complacency will follow.”
— Jere Thompson, Jr.
A willingness to act on ideas and decisions are the assets effective executives bring to the table. And when a decision turns into a disappointment, or a market fluctuation sends plans spiraling, the high-performing CEO readily adapts. For these moments, there is no instruction manual, but the study found that the adaptable CEO was a successful CEO, and one who statistically spent more of their time—as much as half—focused on the future. They are not content to stay within their niche but instead research a wide swath of data and resources, even information unrelated to their industry, to check the pulse of the market and intuitively detect changes before they arrive.
“I think great leaders are caring, compassionate, transparent, humble, servant-minded and always learning,” Loehr Chrysler says. “They take advantage of time management skills and learn to listen to their inner voice and gut instinct while staying true to who they are and who their company is as well. The more I learn, listen, read, study and work on my own leadership, the more confident I become and the more wisdom I have to tap into as needed.”
A Little Fear Can Be Good
It’s true that a lot is riding on even the smallest decision a senior-level executive makes because more is at stake. But if the frustration or stress of that responsibility turns into emotional outbursts and negative body language, it can be a detriment to the entire organization. A study by the National Institutes of Health found that the moods of leaders directly impacted how well individual team members could execute strategy and collaborate. Even an offhand comment or sarcastic scoff could send a department reeling if misinterpreted, which explains why more than three-quarters of the high-performing CEOs in the CEO Genome Project scored high in being able to regulate their emotions. When you have the most power, you also typically have the most influence. That means that not only will employees and contractors follow their leader’s stride and style; they’ll also be looking for clues as to what to expect next. And when the buck stops with you, there’s no safety net on the other side.
The expectations, both real and imagined, that come with the promotion to the highest rung on the ladder of success can be daunting. But a little fear, it turns out, can sometimes be an excellent motivator. “Every C-suite level leader should be a little paranoid,” Thompson says. “The moment arrogance sets in, or the I-can-do-no-wrong overconfidence clouds good judgment, then bad decisions and complacency will follow. Both traits are company killers.”
When the fears feel tangible, as they did at one time for Thompson and Loehr Chrysler, a consistent commitment to decisiveness, creating momentum without waiting for consensus, adapting to meet the future, and steadily providing results can provide a course correction. And when the doubts seek to settle in, or a setback feels like a failure, it’s important to remember that a nameplate on the door of the C-suite does not a superhero make.
“Experience is cumulative,” Thompson says. “We all make bad decisions. Leaders get back up, dust themselves off, and quickly move on. Your organization depends on it.”
4 Things Successful CEO’s Do
The Harvard Business Review’s CEO Genome Project discovered that the successful CEO was almost obsessively consistent in at least one or more of the following four behaviors.
Successful CEO’s: decide with speed and conviction.
When this decisive behavior was present—even when all of the facts weren’t available, or the executive was in unfamiliar territory—the CEO was 12 times more likely to be high-performing.
Successful CEO’s: engage for impact.
Bringing stakeholders along without allowing them to sway the end result is almost an art form. These executives know how to recognize the motivations and dissents of key team members and cast vision that allows others to get on board without losing face. Though these CEO’s allow everyone’s input to be heard, they don’t allow others’ fears to change the course they have set.
Successful CEO’s: adapt proactively.
CEO’s spend most of their time preparing and thinking about the abstract—future results, teams that have yet to be created, problems that are lurking just around the corner—in order to sense changes on the horizon. They also see setbacks not as failures, but as opportunities for improvement.
Successful CEO’s: deliver reliably.
Predictability is safer. That’s why board members were more likely to pick the steadier, even lower producing candidate over the star executive with massive results if history didn’t illustrate those results over time.